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Father Who Died Saving Son Known For Sacrifice

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

If you ever ran into Nokesville dad Thomas S. Vander Woude, chances are you would also see his son Joseph. Whether Vander Woude was volunteering at church, coaching basketball or working on his farm, Joseph was often right there with him, pitching in with a smile, friends and neighbors said yesterday.

When Joseph, 20, who has Down syndrome, fell into a septic tank Monday in his back yard, Vander Woude jumped in after him. He saved him. And he died where he spent so much time living: at his son's side.

"That's how he lived," Vander Woude's daughter-in-law and neighbor, Maryan Vander Woude, said yesterday. "He lived sacrificing his life, everything, for his family."

Vander Woude, 66, had gone to Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Gainesville on Monday, just as he did every day, and then worked in the yard with Joseph, the youngest of his seven sons, affectionately known as Josie. Joseph apparently fell through a piece of metal that covered a 2-by-2-foot opening in the septic tank, according to Prince William County police and family members.

Vander Woude rushed to the tank; a workman at the house saw what was happening and told Vander Woude's wife, Mary Ellen, police said. They called 911 about 12 p.m. and tried to help the father and son in the meantime.

At some point, Vander Woude jumped in the tank, submerging himself in sewage so he could push his son up from below and keep his head above the muck, while Joseph's mom and the workman pulled from above.

When rescue workers arrived, they pulled the two out, police said. Vander Woude, who had been in the tank for 15 to 20 minutes, was unconscious. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, and he was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead, police said.

Joseph remains in Prince William Hospital with double pneumonia, and doctors are monitoring him for infection, said Erin Vander Woude, Thomas Vander Woude's daughter-in-law. Joseph is in critical condition and on a ventilator, she said.

"He doesn't know that his dad died," she said.

For those who knew him, Vander Woude's sacrifice was in keeping with a lifetime of giving.

"He's the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back," said neighbor Lee DeBrish. "And if he didn't have one, he'd buy one for you."

Vander Woude was a pilot in Vietnam, a daughter-in-law said. After the war, he worked as a commercial airline pilot and in the early 1980s moved his family to Prince William from Georgia. In the years to come, he would wear many hats: farmer, athletic director, volunteer coach, parishioner, handy neighbor, grandfather of 24, husband for 43 years.

He divided his Nokesville farm into multiple plots, offering land to all his sons so they could stay close to home if they wanted, the daughter-in-law said. His eldest, Tom, became a priest. Five others -- Steve, Dan, Bob, Chris and Pat -- all married. And there was Joseph, who loved helping with all the odd jobs that filled the retired days of his father.

"He was retired," DeBrish said, "but that was a misnomer, because he was always out crankin' with the backhoe or the tractor."

All of Vander Woude's sons except Joseph attended Seton School in Manassas, where Vander Woude volunteered as coach of the boys' soccer and basketball teams for about 10 years, said the school's director, Anne Carroll.

"He never took a cent for it," she said. Carroll said that Vander Woude was a successful coach, winning multiple championships, but that his greatest strength was his ability to guide kids through challenges off the field.

"He was a mentor," she said. "He wanted them to be good young men, not just good players."

Vander Woude also served as athletic director at Christendom College in Front Royal for about five years, the school's president, Timothy T. O'Donnell, said.

But loved ones said his favorite job was the one he did last: being a good dad.

"They always considered Joseph a wonderful blessing to the family," said Francis Peffley, pastor at Holy Trinity, where Vander Woude served as a sacristan and also trained altar servers. "His whole life was spent serving people and sacrificing himself. . . . He gave the ultimate sacrifice. . . . Giving his life to save his son."

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